Jews in China more than a millennium ago

When the Jewish Chinese scholar Ai Tien and the Christian Italian Matteo Ricci met in Beijing in 1605, each mistook the other for a co-religionist.  Ai Tien was a Chinese native from the Jewish community at Kaifeng.  Ricci, a Jesuit missionary priest, had arrived in China in 1583.  Ai Tien told Ricci that the head of his faith (the Chief Rabbi) had twelve sons.  Ricci mis-understood and thought that Ai Tien was speaking of Jesus and the twelve apostles.  At Ricci’s house, Ai Tien mis-identified Ricci’s paintings of John the Baptist and Mary with the baby Jesus as paintings of Jacob, Rebecca, and Esau.

When Ai Tien and Ricci finally identified each other as a Jew and a Christian, they reached out more generally to each other’s religious community.  Ricci sent a message to Ai Tien’s Chief Rabbi in Kaifeng.  The message informed the Chief Rabbi that the promised Messiah had come long ago.  The Chief Rabbi informed Ricci that that the Messiah hadn’t come and wasn’t going to come for another 10,000 years.  The Chief Rabbi didn’t hold Ricci’s mistaken belief about the Messiah against him.  The Chief Rabbi was old and looking to retire.  Aware of Ricci’s reputation for scriptural knowledge (and probably also aware of Ricci’s wealth and official connections), the Chief Rabbi offered Ricci the job of Chief Rabbi, if he would give up eating pork.  The Jesuit priest Ricci declined to become the Chief Rabbi of the Jewish congregation at Kaifeng.[1]

The early history of Jews in China isn’t clearly documented.  Inscriptions that the Kaifeng Jews made give conflicting information about when Jews arrived in Kaifeng, or in China.  An inscription dated 1489 states that Jews arrived in Kaifeng during the Song Dynasty (960-1279).  But inscriptions dated 1512 and 1663 indicate that Jews arrived in China during the Han Dynasty (206 BGC to 220 GC) and the Zhou period (1066 BGC to 256 BGC), respectively.[3]  Other texts associated with the Kaifeng Jewish community suggest that they arrived in Kaifeng from Persia about the eleventh century.[4]

The Kaifeng Jews were not the first Jews living in China.  A Judeo-Persian letter found at Dandan Uiliq in northwest China has been expertly dated to 760.  Hebrew texts of Psalms and prophetic writings found in the Dunhuang caves also date to the eighth century.[5]  In addition, writing sometime before 916, a Muslim merchant reported that about 878 a Chinese rebel (probably Huang Ch’ao) conquered a southern Chinese city close to the seacoast (probably Canton) and “killed 120,000 Moslems, Jews, Christians, and Magians, who lived in this city and became merchants in it.”[6]

Jewish merchants known as Radhanites were active in overland trans-Eurasia trade from 500 to 1000 GC.  The Central Asian Khazars, or at least their leaders, allegedly converted to Judaism in the late eighth or early ninth centuries.[7]  When in the mid-ninth century the Abbasid caliph wanted to investigate the status of the wall holding back Gog and Magog, he chose Sallām at-Turjumānī to head the expedition.  Sallām was a name associated with Jews.  Moreover, Sallām was also known as Sallām the Interpreter.  He reportedly knew 30 languages.[8]  The Radhanites were known for proficiency with many languages.  Sallām may have been a Radhanite.  He reportedly traveled to Alexander’s wall in western China about the year 850.

Jews probably were among persons living in south-central Eurasia and traveling to China during the Han Dynasty.   The vibrant Jewish community living in the Sassanid Persian Empire created the Babylonian Talmud about 300-500 GC.  Trade opportunities would have prompted Persian merchants, including Jews, to travel to China.  Periodic, intense state persecutions of non-Zoroastrian religions in Sassanid Persia would also have motivated Jews to travel from Persia to the east.  In ancient times, given enough time, Jews and other peoples traversed the great distance between Jerusalem and Beijing.

two Jews from Kaifeng, China, c. 1902

*  *  *  *  *

Read more about Kaifeng Jews, with many references and online primary sources, thanks to Jim R. McClanahan.

Read more about Eurasia:

Notes:

[1] For the primary source documents in English translation, see Leslie (1972) pp. 31-35.  Such religious mis-identification could and did occur more broadly across China’s diverse and competitive array of religions.

[2] Isaiah 49:12.

[3] Xin (2003) p. 19.  The Book of Isaiah refers to Jews who “come from far; … from the land of Sinim.”[2]  In Biblical Hebrew, Sinim might refer to China.  Most scholars think, however, that Sinim represents Syene, now known as Aswan and located on the Nile in southern Egypt.

[4] Id. p. 26.  Weisz (2006) is a recent English translation of the inscriptions.  It argues for settlement of Jews in China during the Han Dynasty. Ghostexorcist (Jim R. McClanahan), a highly knowledgeable “paratrooper-turned-college student,” provides an informed review of Weisz’s work and argues strongly that Kaifeng Jews did not enter China during the Han Dynasty.

[5] McClanahan (2011) Part II (which includes an image of the Judeo-Persian manuscript); Xin (2003) p. 153.

[6] Leslie (1972) p. 7.

[7] Gil (2011) reports that tenth-century Arabs and Arabic-speaking Jews eagerly and without good reason adopted the belief that the Khazars converted.  The best medieval Arab historians do not claim that such a conversion occurred.  The legend of the Khazars conversion might be interpreted as imagining a welcoming people for the many Jews making difficult and hazardous journeys across Eurasia.

[8] Donzel, Schmidt & Ott (2009) pp. xvii, 131-132.  Id., p. xvii, suggests that Sallām at-Turjumānī was “probably a Khazarian Jew from Samarra” and id. argues that he actually traveled to Yumenguan in western China.  Here’s discussion of Sallām at-Turjumānī’s curious quest.

[image] Li Ching-sheng and his son Li Tsung-mai, two Kaifeng Jews from c. 1900.  Photo from Ezra, Edward Isaac, “Chinese Jews,” The East of Asia Magazine 1 (1902) pp. 278-296, reproduced in Leslie (1972) Plate XXXIV.

References:

Donzel, E. J. van, Andrea B. Schmidt, and Claudia Ott. 2009. Gog and Magog in early Syriac and Islamic sources: Sallam’s quest for Alexander’s wall.  Leiden: Brill.

Gil Moshe. 2011. “Did the Khazars convert to Judaism?” Revue Des Etudes Juives. 170 (3-4): 429-441.

Leslie, Donald. 1972. The survival of the Chinese Jews: the Jewish community of Kaifeng. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill.

McClanahan, Jim R. 2011. “Kaifeng Jews: Why their ancestors came to China.”

Weisz, Tiberiu. 2006. The Kaifeng stone inscriptions: the legacy of the Jewish community in ancient China. New York: iUniverse.

Xin, Xu. 2003. The Jews of Kaifeng, China: history, culture, and religion. Jersey City, NJ: KTAV Publishing House.

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